In late March a drone strike was carried out in Syria. Not by the United States or Israel, but by forces opposing the illegal US occupation of eastern Syria. The strike left one American contractor dead and several US service members injured.
While the US responded by carrying out airstrikes of its own in Syria against groups Washington claims are linked to the drone strike, the limited response and subsequent attacks on US troops reveals the deep and growing quandary the US has found itself in both in Syria and across the wider Middle East.
Why is the US in Syria in the First Place?
The US has operated militarily in Syria since 2014, doing so without any United Nations mandate, nor with permission from Syria’s internationally recognized government in Damascus. The US predicates its presence in Syria including its military occupation of eastern Syria on fighting terrorist organizations including the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (ISIS, is banned in Russia)
In reality, as US Deputy Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul admitted publicly during a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) event titled, “Syria in the Gray Zone” in 2019, the US military occupation is meant to deprive Syria of its primary agricultural and energy resources, using the freezing and starving of the Syrian population as leverage against both Damascus and its allies including Russia and Iran.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Stroul would claim during the CSIS event that the US possessed what she called “compelling forms of leverage on the table to shape an outcome that was more conducive and protective of US interests.”
This included the US occupation of one-third of Syrian territory in the nation’s eastern region. Stroul would note that:
That one third of Syria is the resource rich – it’s the economic powerhouse of Syria. So where the hydrocarbons are which obviously is very much in the public debate here in Washington these days, as well as the agricultural powerhouse.
She noted that together with the US’ “economic sanctions architecture,” the majority of the nation reduced to what she called “rubble” could be kept that way by denying Syria and its allies the ability to invest in reconstruction.
The rest of Syria though, is rubble and what the Russians want and what Assad wants is economic reconstruction.
That is something that the United States can basically hold a card on via the international financial institutions and our cooperation with the Europeans. So we argued that absent behavioral changes by the Assad regime we should hold the line on preventing reconstruction aid and technical expertise from going back into Syria.
In other words, the US military presence in Syria is part of an overall policy meant to either coerce the Syrian government into subordinating itself to Washington’s demands and interests, or suffer a perpetual humanitarian crisis stemming from the deliberate obstruction of food, energy, and reconstruction aid. The notion that the US is in Syria “to fight ISIS” serves merely as a smokescreen behind which this agenda is advanced.
What the Escalation Tells Us About US Power in the Middle East
The New York Times in a March 24, 2023 article titled, “Conflict in Syria Escalates Following Attack That Killed a U.S. Contractor,” would claim:
The conflict in northeast Syria escalated on Friday as Iran-backed militias launched a volley of rocket and drone attacks against coalition bases after American reprisals for a drone attack that killed a U.S. contractor and injured six other Americans.
President Biden, speaking at a news conference in Canada, sought to tamp down fears that tit-for-tat strikes between the United States and militant groups could spiral out of control, while at the same time warning Tehran to rein in its proxies.
The US reprisals for the original drone strike do not appear to have convinced various armed forces operating in Syria to abandon their strategy of applying growing military pressure on US forces occupying eastern Syria.
It is abundantly clear to all parties in the region that Syria, Iran, and its allies possess escalation dominance.
The US is heavily committed to its proxy war in Ukraine against Russia and is deeply invested in ongoing preparations for war with China. The US military footprint in Syria is small and while USCENTCOM still consists of tens of thousands of US troops in the region, the US does not have the logistical means of fighting a large-scale conflict in and around Syria without indefinitely compromising its objectives in Eastern Europe and in the Pacific.
Thus, US President Joe Biden is attempting to avoid an escalation despite the growing military pressure placed on US forces occupying eastern Syria, simply because to do so would mean abandoning either its operations in Ukraine or the Pacific – perhaps even both.
Conversely, it appears forces in the region targeting the US military occupation are carefully managing the frequency and scale of their military operations to avoid forcing the US into a drastic escalation. The goal appears to be making the US occupation in eastern Syria increasingly unsustainable, forcing the US to eventually abandon its positions.
Additional details from the above-cited New York Times article illustrate other important aspects of Washington’s waning military might both in the region and in general.
The article notes:
Two U.S. officials said the main air defense system at the base was “not fully operational” at the time, raising questions about whether the attackers had detected that vulnerability and exploited it, or just happened to send the drone at that time, according to people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.
Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said that the air defense’s radar was working but he declined to discuss any other details of the system, citing operational security and an investigation by the military’s Central Command.
The article reveals that at least part of the US base’s air defense consisted of the Avenger missile defense system. This is a vehicle-mounted version of the man-portable Stinger anti-aircraft missile. Thousands of the man-portable variety have been sent to Ukraine along with a much smaller number of Avenger systems.
While the US Stinger missile provides formidable short-range protection against a variety of aerial targets, it falls far short of providing the protection provided by the tiered integrated air defense systems employed by nations like Russia, China, Syria, and also Iran. Ukraine’s use of the Stinger missile prevents Russian warplanes and helicopters from operating with impunity across much of Ukraine’s airspace. However, the missiles have proven less effective against missiles and drones.
The shortcomings of US air defense technology was already a growing problem long before these systems were put to the test in Ukraine. US-manufactured Patriot missiles have repeatedly failed to provide Saudi Arabia protection during drone and missile attacks carried out by Yemeni forces, as reported by articles like NBC News’ “Why U.S. Patriot missiles failed to stop drones and cruise missiles attacking Saudi oil sites.”
In fact, the US and many of its NATO allies have for decades neglected air defense systems in favor of emphasizing air superiority. However, despite the US possessing air superiority over eastern Syria, technology that the West once monopolized like drones and missiles have now proliferated into the arsenals of national armed forces and local militias alike. These drones and missiles can easily slip past warplanes and require advanced ground-based air defense systems to intercept, systems the US simply doesn’t have at the moment.
The US’ inability to protect its forces against the growing drone, missile, and artillery capabilities of regional forces coupled together with its military being increasingly stretched elsewhere, gives local forces the ability to inflict both physical and political damage on the US occupation, making the occupation increasingly unsustainable.
Geopolitical Tides are Washington Away US Domination in the Middle East
The transformation of the Middle East geopolitically ensures that this process continues undermining Washington’s military presence in the region. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey all being brought to the table by Russia and China to reverse years of hostilities-by-proxy leave the US increasingly isolated politically and also militarily.
USCENTCOM relies heavily on the illusion of chaos in the region to justify its military footprint on the Arabian Peninsula. With this chaos in the process of being reduced, so follows the justification the US uses to maintain that military footprint. If one or more nations in the region reduce or entirely end the US military presence inside their borders, Washington’s ability to escalate in response to attacks on their forces in eastern Syria dwindles even further.
A combination of the growing military capabilities opposed to the US’ illegal occupation of Syria and the shifting geopolitical order in the wider region is leaving US forces increasingly isolated and vulnerable. Their occupation of eastern Syria, predicated on starving and freezing the Syrian population into submission, already indefensible, will also become militarily unsustainable. Any attempt by the US to bolster its position in eastern Syria will come at the cost of its ongoing proxy conflict with Russia in Ukraine and its planned conflict with China over its island province of Taiwan. Only time will tell where the US decides to place the remainder of its military might in its attempt to dominate Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific, but one thing is almost certain, it cannot successfully dominate all three.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.